Give Congress credit for finally coming to agreement on a new surface transportation bill, after months of acrimonious debate and nine extensions of the old funding law, known as SAFETY-LU. The fact that the Senate and House of Representatives could agree on anything at all is, I suppose, reason to applaud, especially given the toxic atmosphere that chokes the political scene today. And this new measure is something more than a "kick-the-can-down-the-road" effort, given that it maintains current highway funding levels until September 2014.
Nevertheless, the bill, known as MAP-21, doesn't begin to solve the deeper problems that plague the transportation funding issue, not least among them the need for additional revenues to meet long-term infrastructure repair and construction needs.
Start with the good stuff. The 27-month extension of funding allows state and local planners to move ahead with some big projects, secure in the knowledge that the money isn't going to disappear overnight. Some streamlining of the procedures for environmental review would cut in half the time it takes to complete a typical highway construction project. In addition, the bill takes steps toward the crafting of a national freight transportation policy, including the identification of a primary network of some 27,000 miles of critical roads. Presumably, these are the routes that would receive funding priority from the federal government.
The bill, as approved by both houses, contains many other provisions related to such topics as port funding, freight brokers, truck safety and permissible commercial truck size and weight. (In the case of the last, it calls only for a two-year study on the feasibility of heavier trucks, surely a disappointment to those who feel that the current restrictions are too stringent and act as a barrier to increased productivity.) What it doesn't include, thankfully, is language that was being pushed by the Republican-controlled House in support of the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada. Regardless of what one might think of that project, it had no place in this bill, and its inclusion in the House version was a blatant political ploy that threatened to torpedo the entire surface transportation measure.
But the biggest oversight in MAP-21 is the most crucial issue at all: the question of how future infrastructure projects will be funded. The bill's provisions fall nearly $50bn short of what's needed to repair and improve the nation's transportation system each year, meaning that general revenues will have to be tapped to make up the difference. And regrettably, there's no call for increasing the federal gas tax, which has remained at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993, yet is supposed to be the primary source of the national Highway Trust Fund. Inflation has eroded the fund to the point where it has become shockingly inadequate to meet the infrastructure needs of the present, let alone the future.
So where do we stand? With little more than the rough beginnings of a long-term solution. "The bill does not provide a path forward in identifying a long-term sustainable and significant funding source that is paid for by the users of the transportation system," said former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, who co-chairs the advocacy group called Building America's Future. The National Shippers Strategic Transportation Council (Nasstrac), while calling MAP-21 "critical legislation," expressed disappointment that it didn't take a stronger stand in favor of heavier trucks. Other industry groups have weighed in with varying levels of support, perhaps relieved that even a smidgen of progress has been made.
MAP-21 won't fulfill any of its intent if lawmakers and industry leaders don't spend the coming years in a serious discussion of how the cause of increased infrastructure funding can be further advanced. The last thing we need is another period of political posturing, irrelevant riders and stopgap solutions.
Joshua Schank, president and chief executive officer of The Eno Center for Transportation, is among those experts who are giving serious thought to the matter. He strongly supports the development of a national freight plan, as a means of prioritizing investment and, ultimately, promoting U.S. global competitiveness. But he cautions against a focus on highways to the exclusion of other modes of transport. Rail, inland waterways, seaports and airports all must be considered part of the puzzle.
"Unfortunately," Schank writes in a recent article on the Eno website, MAP-21 "distributes money for the freight network entirely by formula, and it is almost entirely highway focused. Freight investments are by nature lumpy and distributing them by formula does little to ensure cost-effectiveness from a national perspective." What planners and lawmakers ought to be doing, he says, is concentrating on key transportation bottlenecks, "which may require substantial capital investment in multiple modes but concentrated in one place."
What Schank is proposing is highly controversial, and opens up the possibility of an endless war among multiple competing interests. Where should we be directing our limited infrastructure funds? Toward cities or rural areas? Commercial operations or passengers? Cars and trucks or mass transit? Traditional modes or high-speed rail? Then there's the potential for siphoning off funds for ancillary projects like bicycle paths and transportation museums.
Still, Schank has a point: you can't solve the funding dilemma without addressing all of the elements that make up the word "transportation." Nor will we advance one mile more on the road to a solution if we adopt rigid ideological stances on issues such as taxation and the role of government. We can demonstrate a penchant for business as usual, or a real sense of national purpose. That's the choice we face over the next 27 months.
- Robert J. Bowman, SupplyChainBrain
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